“The Way He Looks,” Brazil’s official submission for best foreign language film in the Oscar race (which opens theatrically this week) is a delicate coming-of-age story much like Richard Linklater’s hugely successful “Boyhood.”
In Linklater’s latest, we watch Mason’s life unfold from age six through 18 — experiencing, alongside our hero, the enchantments of childhood and youth, and the drawbacks of growing up. Through its 12-year-long arc, “Boyhood” suggests that at each disappointment, each triumph, and each cornerstone event, the seeds of adulthood sprout in the composition of a fully formed person.
“The Way He Looks,” in turn, covers only a couple of weeks in a teenager’s life, offering a peek into the crucial moments of romantic discovery and sexual awakening that lead the protagonist to assess and organize his priorities, needs, and desires.
A Desire to Go Solo
Like “Boyhood,” writer-director Daniel Ribeiro’s first feature film avoids melodramatic or cornerstone moments while exploring the joys and difficulties of growing up. The film’s focal point is Leonardo (Ghilherme Lobo), an over-protected blind high-school student who listens to classical music and practices his first kiss alone in the shower. Every day after school, Giovana (Tess Amorim) walks Leonardo back home to make sure he returns safely, and strategically steers clear of school bullies who make fun of his Perkins Brailler during class and play with his inability to see.
Despite his intimate friendship with Giovana, Leonardo toys with the idea of going on an exchange program abroad to be away from everyone he knows and to rid himself of overprotective parents. He wants to start anew, invent a fresh personality from scratch, meet different people. “Don’t you like your personality?” asks Giovana. “I do,” says Leonardo, “but I’m not the problem.”
Giovana is quite the Sancho Panza to Leonardo’s Don Quixote. A faithful, tireless and always-ready esquire, she is also responsible for much of the film’s humor. As Leonardo invests in new pursuits (the exchange program and an unexpected love interest), Giovana’s jealousy grows and the inseparable pair begins to drift apart. But she is always around, ready to protect her best friend from both bullies and heartache.
The original Portuguese title — which literally translates to “I Want to Go Back Alone” — suggests Leonardo’s rite of passage from depending on others to do small tasks to taking matters into his own hands. Yet, amidst his own insecurities and life-changing decisions, Leonardo wants to walk alone, to prove to himself and others that he can be independent.
For a blind teenager to whom trust has been paramount to “surviving” in school, time has come to let go of certain crutches. Yet his desires are shaken by the arrival of a new kid in school, as Leonardo realizes that independence alone may not be as sweet as romantic love.
“I Think I’m In Love”
In comes Gabriel (Fabio Audi), a cutesy countryside lad whose charisma and approachability warms more than a couple of hearts in the classroom. On his first day of school, he happens to sit right behind Leonardo and his Braille typewriter, thus starting a friendship with him and Giovana.
The dynamics of the routine walk back home from school, an activity with which Giovana seems to take great joy and pride, suffers some changes once Gabriel gets closer to the friends. Gabriel takes Leonardo to a movie theater, and to a park in the dead of night to watch the lunar eclipse. As the boys grow closer to one another, Gabriel’s sexuality appears more and more ambiguous, only to further confuse Leonardo’s feelings towards the new student.
Ribeiro’s treatment of homosexuality is delicate, subtle and understated. At no point in the film is the word “gay” — or any other sexual label — mentioned. There is no “coming out” scene either, and everyone surrounding Leonardo seems to understand, in one way or another, how his relationship with Gabriel develops.
Overall, the film treats its theme with the same simplicity Leonardo himself treats his sexual awakening, privileging a naturalistic approach (with the exception of an exquisite dream sequence from Leonardo’s perspective). Notwithstanding the film’s realist aesthetics, this world where sexuality is something to be explored and discovered at one’s own discretion has a utopian quality, working as a powerful alternative to heterosexual portrayals of teenage love.
Director Daniel Ribeiro is no stranger to queer cinema. Prior to “The Way He Looks,” Ribeiro has approached the theme of homosexuality in two short films, receiving accolades in festivals around the world, and captivating a surprisingly large audience on YouTube.
“You, Me and Him” (2007) follows Marcos after his parents’ untimely death makes him responsible for his younger brother and keeps him from moving in with his boyfriend. The film explores the relationship between the three characters as they learn to cope with the new circumstances.
Shot and released in 2010, and even more popular than Ribeiro’s first short, “I Don’t Want to Go Back Alone” tells the same story and uses the same actors as “The Way He Looks,” but explores more directly Leonardo’s sexual awakening without developing secondary characters and relationships as well as the feature.
As a result, four years later — by the time “The Way He Looks” was released in Brazil — the film had already amassed a cult following, with fans praising its lighthearted and romantic approach to the subject matter, and eagerly awaiting the return of a beloved trio of characters.
Paralleling the “Boyhood effect,” the now-older actors return, even more finely tuned, to those same characters. Several agreeable traits carry over: the soundtrack, a sweatshirt left behind, and certain scenes that play out in similar fashion. Still, fans of the short will be pleasantly surprised and nothing short of satisfied with “The Way He Looks,” a fresh and delicious take on growing up.